IRA on road to nowhere

The return of violence would be terrorism without a strategy, says David McKittrick
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The Independent Online
In the wake of an IRA atrocity such as Manchester, the democratic decencies seem to dictate that as much civic outrage is directed at Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein as against the IRA. As the public face of republicanism Adams acts as a lightning conductor, attracting the anger and indignation of those who see the destruction, the blood pouring from people's heads, and want to know why he cannot simply stand up and say: "I condemn the IRA for doing that."

He never will. He has already dug deep into his thesaurus recently to say he was shocked and saddened by the bomb and relieved that no one was killed. When an Irish detective was murdered in Limerick this month he described it as completely and utterly wrong and declared: "I repudiate and renounce it."

But he will not use the word "condemn", because in republican terms that word carries a huge emotional charge. For Adams to use it would in effect amount to either a formal proclamation of a split in the republican movement or his effective departure from it.

The justification of hoping for a split is that it would weaken the IRA militarily and politically. But judging from past experience the IRA survives splits, emerging as more militaristic as ever and if anything less subject to political inhibitions. If Adams were to leave the republican movement, he would become in effect a second John Hume, beseeching from the outside rather than working on the inside.

It is difficult for democrats to come to terms with the fact that Adams will not condemn IRA violence, but this is accepted as an unpalatable but unavoidable fact of life by senior security figures. A similar situation arose late in 1993, less than a year before the IRA cessation, when the IRA bomber Thomas Begley killed nine people and himself in the Shankill Road bombing.

The world's outrage at the carnage was redoubled when Adams was pictured carrying Begley's coffin, but senior security sources, then as now, were unsurprised. A high-level security source later said: "Anyone who would castigate Adams for carrying the coffin could have no concept of republicanism. If he were involved in a process to turn republicans away from violence, for him to have credibility there wasn't any way he could shun being closely identified with the funeral."

The man who said that has had colleagues and close friends killed by the IRA, was himself for many years on their target list, and may well be again. In private he exhibits the quality that very often distinguishes many security people in Northern Ireland from their political masters in London: a willingness to face facts as they are.

He and other security people would prefer to have Adams inside the republican tent rather than outside it. They are confident that there is a peace party within that movement. In security circles there is also the firm view that there will be no split - and also, interestingly, a feeling that a split would be an unfortunate development which would not bring peace nearer.

Unusually, this was spelt out publicly last year by the RUC deputy chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan, who said in a BBC interview: "The paramilitary organisations are still intact, but the irony is that they must remain intact. If we are going to have a peace delivered then we can't have people fragmenting all over the place and engaging unilaterally in violence."

There is therefore a logic in constitutional politicians preserving a relationship with Adams, even at arm's length, as a conduit into republicanism. Those who decide to do so, however, will do so on the basis of judgements that he is working to coax his movement away from terrorism and that he might at some stage succeed.

But at this moment, in the wake of the Manchester and Limerick incidents, the war party is clearly in the ascendant. All of England is now a "legitimate target", it seems, and there is the possibility of a return to violence in Northern Ireland, either from the IRA or the loyalists.

One key question concerns how many in the wider republican movement will be prepared to follow an IRA order to go back to war. There would be no mutiny within the IRA and Sinn Fein would not, as we have seen, be in the business of condemnation. There will be little or no open revolt from the wider republican movement, where the view is widespread that public criticisms of the IRA only give aid and comfort to the enemy, the British.

A number of factors will come into play to ensure a measure of communal solidarity. These include a generalised sense of loyalty, a widespread feeling in the ghettos that Britain threw away the opportunity of the last ceasefire, and perhaps a fatalistic sense of inevitability. The return of troops to the streets, and the resumption of loyalist attacks on Catholic districts, will tend to unify the republican community.

But there is no doubt that a large majority of that community would regard a renewed war with deep dismay, and contemplate a return to full-scale conflict with the heaviest of hearts. There are many reasons for this.

Until 1994 the IRA waged its terrorist war with the support, fervent or implicit, of the 80,000 people who regularly voted for Sinn Fein. At 10 or 11 per cent of the vote and more than a third of the nationalist vote, this indicated a high level of tolerance for violence.

But the rise in the Sinn Fein vote in last month's election, to 116,000, provided statistical confirmation of what was in evidence on the streets: that almost all republicans were relieved when the ceasefire was declared, and that the peace process was tremendously popular among them.

Right through the ceasefire the general republican view was that the British were dragging their feet, that prisoners should have been released and talks opened. Yet, for all this, the process continued to have widespread support. Ghetto families liked streets free of soldiers, liked the lifting of the threat of loyalist attacks on their pubs, and liked the freedom to wander into places previously too dangerous to venture into.

They liked Sinn Fein's particular brand of politics, with Gerry Adams shaking hands with Hume, Reynolds, Clinton, Mandela. For all Britain's alleged obduracy, the ceasefire brought to that community a new sense of momentum, of doors opening and horizons widening. This was a stark and welcome contrast to the old days of isolation and exclusion.

Now the question is whether those feelings count for anything within republicanism. In contrast to the pragmatism which has characterised Sinn Fein in recent years, the IRA army council appears to think in a formalistic way: a cessation was called to facilitate negotiations; real negotiations were not on offer; therefore it was back to the bombs.

But those in the IRA who believe the conflict can simply be resumed where it was left off are surely wrong. The old war trundled grimly, murderously, on almost out of unthinking habit, the bombings continuing because nobody seemed able to suggest an alternative way. The peace process gave the ghettos a vision of another way. Much will now depend on whether some mechanism exists for those people to register their disapproval of a resumption.

The old war had, in any event, lost much of any logic it ever had - for the simplistic belief that the British would eventually surrender and go home had become unconvincingly threadbare. Today the sense is ingrained that there can be no military victory over the British army.

A community worker in the heart of West Belfast said this week: "One of the absolute truths now is that nobody believes there's an advantage to war. They might have believed it before, but there's no conviction about it now. They will go along with it out of family ties, history, and so on, but the issue will be how long can you sustain a war if you don't believe in it."

This illustrates the central weakness of the IRA's position. Republicans have become used to participating in politics and the peace process, watching and following a Sinn Fein leadership that radiated a sense of purpose and direction. So far the IRA has set out no strategic vision of how attacks such as Manchester advance the republican cause.

As a result there is much puzzlement in the ghettos as to what the new game-plan could be. The republican movement is not a democratic entity, but the grassroots do expect a clear line of strategy to be laid out. At the moment no such explanation has been given.

At this dark and uncertain time, this in itself offers some glimmer of hope. No one is in any doubt that the IRA could set off more bombs; the issue is whether a campaign could be sustained. The IRA itself may be determined to march backwards into the past, but a movement without a viable philosophy is, in the long run, going nowhere.